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Take out a sheet of paper and number from one to seven. Now list the seven deadly sins in what you would say is their order of badness.

Did you put envy last? Does it seem “less bad” to you than lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride? If so, elevate it immediately to Deadly Sin number one. It has you fooled, which makes it the deadliest sin in the bunch.

It probably marketed itself to you as something good (a form of admiration), or something partially good (a synonym for jealousy), instead of something thoroughly bad (frustrated self-exaltation fueled by animosity, resentment, and defensiveness). If you bought its bill of goods, your worthy walk has been hobbled and your life isn’t reflecting God’s character as well as it should. Even if you weren’t sold by its slick spin, you probably know folks who were. So, let’s unmask this deadly deceiver so we can help one another grow in Christlikeness and glorify God.

Envy is not a form of admiration. It does not think or say, “That person has godly qualities, spiritual gifts, efficient habits, productive skills, and proven ability that I want to imitate.” Well-placed admiration is a good thing. In fact, it is a key ingredient in spiritual mentoring. The apostle Paul encouraged the Philippians: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17). Admiration looks to the exemplary lives of others and gratefully, joyfully, humbly, and earnestly patterns its life after them for the purpose of walking worthy of our high calling in Christ and giving God glory. 

Envy doesn’t admire and pursue imitation of worthy mentors. Instead it finds fault with them, attempts to bring them down, and lashes out in spiteful hatred when it is foiled. It looks like Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife plotting to destroy a righteous man; it looks like Haman trying to frame Mordecai; and it looks like the Pharisees seeking to kill Jesus.

Envy is not a synonym for jealousy. Synonyms can be used interchangeably; envy and jealousy can’t. If you don’t believe me, try substituting the word “envious” for “jealous” in the phrase: “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” Jealousy is possessive and protective; it can be good or bad. God’s jealousy — His possessiveness of His people — is a good thing; it protects us from being plucked out of His hand. Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy — their possessive desire to protect their family standing — was a bad thing; it drove them to harm the younger brother whose dreams revealed that he would one day rule over them.

Envy is acquisitive, resentful, and selfish; it is always bad. It wants what others have simply because they have it, bears grudges against those who have what it doesn’t, and accuses God of being unfair. It looks like Jacob conniving to steal the birthright from Esau; it looks like Rachel begrudging Leah her children; it looks like Peter pointing at John and asking Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 

Envy is on a par with the other six deadly sins because it destroys what Jesus said would be the distinguishing mark of His church in this world — love for one another (John 13:34–35). Paul said our love for one another should be affectionate and compassionate, unite us in spirit, and make us intent on one purpose; it should lead us away from selfishness and empty conceit, cause us to humbly regard others as more important than ourselves, and stimulate us to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:1–4). First Corinthians 13:4 tells us that love is kind and does not envy. The kindness of love is committed to the welfare of others, whereas the envy that isn’t love is consumed with itself. The love Jesus said would characterize His church in the world mirrors the “kindness of God our Savior” who saved us “according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:4–7).

We walk worthy of our high calling of giving God glory when we reveal, exalt, reflect, and broadcast the value, significance, beauty, and majesty of God in our actions, attitudes, perspectives, and speech. Kindness does that; envy does not. Kindness is an expression of love; it seeks the welfare of others. Envy is the antithesis of love; it seeks its own desires at the expense of others. Envy and kindness correspond as deadly sin and heavenly virtue because they are polar opposites. Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) that, when exercised in the power of the Spirit, glorifies God by displaying His character. Envy is a work of the flesh (vv. 19–21) motivated by rivalry and conceit that exalts self by devaluing others.

Jesus listed envy as one of the “evil things” that come from within a person and defiles him (Mark 7:20–23). He also commanded us to reflect the kindness of God in our relationships with others (Luke 6:35). We need to listen to Him. He knows that envy inhibits fulfillment of our chief end, whereas kindness promotes it.

Cosmic Treason

Pride & Humility

Keep Reading The Seven Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues

From the May 2008 Issue
May 2008 Issue